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Not Dead Yet: The Age

By Sue Turnbull

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When crafting tales of misdeeds, this author might have had one eye on a TV mini-series.

In a week when a teacup once used by Lady Gaga sold for $75,000 at auction, it was timely to read a crime novel featuring a pop diva and her obsessive fans. Always assiduous in research, British author Peter James (who has been at this week’s Sydney Writers’ Festival) apparently consulted a dedicated Madonna fan as background to this case in the career of Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, discovering in the process just how much people are willing to spend and how far they are prepared to go in the adoration of their idol: $75,000 is peanuts. The price of fame is much higher.

Not Dead Yet opens as the fictional Gaia Lafayette contemplates her coming role in a historical film based on the love affair of George IV (nicknamed Prinny) and his ”secret wife”, Maria Fitzherbert, to be filmed in Brighton, England. Her agent has promised it will be the next The King’s Speech and Gaia is convinced the stars are Oscar aligned. Sadly, it’s never that simple.

For a start, Gaia has been receiving death threats via email and when one of her lookalike entourage is killed, her security guards and the Brighton constabulary are put on highest alert. Enter Roy Grace and his sidekick, the dapper Glenn Branson, who already have their hands full with a torso discovered in the sewers of a chicken farm: foul play indeed. Even worse, bad jokes ensue as the gallows humour of those whose job it is to clean up horrific crime scenes gains traction.

This is the eighth book in a series that has built a strong following in Britain. It’s not hard to understand why. James writes a ”busy” book with multiple plot lines and many different characters from whose perspectives we witness the unfolding events. These include Gaia herself, the film producer desperate for a breakthrough hit, Gaia’s murderous stalkers and her fans. And that’s before we get to Glenn Branson, Roy Grace and his partner, the heavily pregnant Cleo, who is about to have their child.

As such, the book reads less like a crime novel and more like the literary equivalent of an episode in a TV series. The 147 chapters (some less than a page) approximate an unfolding sequence of scenes in a gripping telemovie, which builds to a climax in the banquet room of the Royal Pavilion – a great setting.

The possibility that James has his eye on a TV adaptation is reinforced by the fact that while the plots dealing with Gaia and the body at the chicken farm are resolved, he leaves a whopping cliffhanger involving the main characters. The latter thus constitutes a narrative arc that might well encompass the series (or in screenplay terms, the season) as a whole.

Frankly, I’m looking forward to meeting Roy Grace on screen, because he doesn’t come across vividly on the page. Unlike Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Henning Mankell’s Wallander or Mark Billingham’s Thorne, Grace does not compel sympathy or attention in quite the same way. Maybe this is because, with his ”Paul Newman eyes”, good looks, fit body and attractive partner, he’s neither complicated nor miserable enough to really care about, although he does have a ”tragic” event in his past.

This lack of affect may also be an effect of James’s narrative choices. In opting for multiple characters and perspectives, we don’t always see things from Grace’s point of view and his is not the controlling intelligence trying to fit the pieces together.

To give James his due, the pieces of the puzzle are provided to readers who may well (as I did) congratulate themselves on having unravelled the main plot twist long before Grace cottons on. There are rewards to be had.